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Simon LAKS (1901-1983)
Trois pièces de concert (1935) [15:41]
Sonate pour violoncelle et piano (1932) [16:27]
Suite polonaise (1935) [25:13]
Ballade “Hommage à Chopin” (1949) [12:35]
Judith Ingolfsson (violin); Leonid Gorokhov (cello); Vladimir Stoupel (piano)
rec. 2007/8, Siemens Villa, Berlin Lankwitz

A native of Poland and originally called Szymon, Simon Laks was one of that band of creatives that turned Paris into the main centre for art and music in the 1920s. He owed his technical grounding to a thorough training at the Paris Conservatoire, becoming involved with the “Association des Jeunes Musiciens Polonais” at the same time as Alexandre Tansman was the leading light of Polish music in the French capital. Laks was forging a respectable career at the outbreak of World War II, but as a Polish citizen of Jewish descent was unable to escape or emigrate. He did, through an “endless series of miracles”, escape death in Auschwitz as a musician and finally director of the men’s orchestra. Laks’s music received recognition and awards after the war but, scarred by his wartime experiences and lacking the artistic networks he had built up in the 1920s and 30s, he suffered a similar fate to others such as Korngold and became isolated from the noisy avant-garde.

Most of these works are pre-World War II, and the Trois pièces de concert form a light and entertaining introduction to Laks’s work of the 1930s. The booklet notes characterise his idiom as “simultaneously Polish and French… [with] incisiveness, wit, irony, and a propensity for playful virtuosity everywhere, but also great soulfulness in the slow movements.” This of course in opposition to Germanic complexity and profundity. The Trois pièces encapsulate this playfulness, and the lyrical nature of the second of the three, Andante un poco grave, indeed makes for something soulful rather than funereal.

The Cello Sonata opens with a darker seriousness of purpose, but that sense of virtuosity shines through in variations that side-track the musical narrative with innocent-sounding distractions along the way. The spirit of Ravel is at times apparent, the second movement having unmistakable jazz elements in its bluesy chords and the lazily casual nature of its melodies. Irregular but deeply swinging rhythms extend this jazzy feel into the final Presto, suggested in the booklet as a sort of Dave Brubeck “avant la lettre”.

Dedicated to Szymanowski, the Suite polonaise is based on Polish songs, with folk-music qualities in the writing for the violin and a distinctive clarity in the sweet-sour harmonies of the piano part. These movements go far beyond mere arrangements, with plenty of exploratory composing and gorgeous moments, delivering a level of confident sophistication that sees a young composer at the top of his game. These could so easily have been ‘salon’ entertainments, but with the general ‘neoclassical’ stylistic umbrella that covers much of this music these are pieces that have something of the quality of Arthur Lourié’s Parisian phase about them.

The Ballade “Hommage à Chopin”, takes us into a different post-war period, and sees Laks returning to his spiritual and physical homeland. This is a piano solo with a tender and reflective heart in the first half, the pianism of the whole owing something to Chopin without becoming pastiche. The second part of the work is of that heroically bravura nature with which we associate Chopin, but even though his spirit is conjured powerfully the piece retains and defends its originality. This is the kind of work you can play blind to friends and drive them up the wall, knowing it’s not Chopin but unable to fix on a name who would be able to produce such a fantastic tribute in music.

Recording and performances of these works, all but the Cello Sonata of which are world premieres, are all top class. The Cello Sonata has appeared on a Nimbus disc NI5862 from 2010 with cellist Raphael Wallfisch and pianist John York, which is a good performance but doesn’t have quite the clarity in the recording as the present disc. The EDA label has further works by Laks including his opera L’Hirondelle inattendue on EDA35. This hommage is a very fine release indeed and I would recommend it to anyone intrigued by this neglected but brilliant 20th century figure, whose hybrid of Polish character and “Ecole de Paris” élan shines yet further light on a fascinating period of the last century.

Dominy Clements


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